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decided: April 14, 1947.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge, Burton

Author: Rutledge

[ 331 U.S. Page 71]

 MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

An ordinance of Saddle River Township, New Jersey, forbids carrying on the business of storing goods for hire

[ 331 U.S. Page 72]

     except upon the payment of an annual license tax.*fn1 Independent Warehouses, Inc., and Thompson, an agent of that company, have been convicted and fined for conducting such a business without procuring the license or paying the tax. The convictions have been sustained by New Jersey's highest court.*fn2 The appeal here seeks to have that judgment reversed on the basis that the business done was exclusively interstate and consequently the application made of the ordinance contravenes the commerce clause of the Federal Constitution, Art. I, § 8. Fourteenth Amendment objections also are raised.*fn3

The main thrust of the argument has been toward the commerce clause phase of the case. In this the controversy is of the familiar "interruption" or "cessation" type. The issue accordingly requires only a determination of the proper application to be made of well-established legal principles to the particular circumstances. It is whether the cessation taking place in the movement of goods interstate, as shown by the record, is of a nature which permits the state or a municipality to tax the goods or services, here the business of storing them, rendered in connection with their handling.*fn4

The governing principles were stated in Minnesota v. Blasius, 290 U.S. 1, 9-10, as follows:

". . . the States may not tax property in transit in interstate commerce. But, by reason of a break in the

[ 331 U.S. Page 73]

     transit, the property may come to rest within a State and become subject to the power of the State to impose a non-discriminatory property tax.*fn5 Such an exertion of state power belongs to that class of cases in which, by virtue of the nature and importance of local concerns, the State may act until Congress, if it has paramount authority over the subject, substitutes its own regulation. The 'crucial question,' in determining whether the State's taxing power may thus be exerted, is that of 'continuity of transit.' Carson Petroleum Co. v. Vial, 279 U.S. 95, 101.

"If the interstate movement has not begun, the mere fact that such a movement is contemplated does not withdraw the property from the State's power to tax it. . . . If the interstate movement has begun, it may be regarded as continuing, so as to maintain the immunity of the property from state taxation, despite temporary interruptions due to the necessities of the journey or for the purpose of safety and convenience in the course of the movement. . . . Formalities, such as the forms of billing, and mere changes in the method of transportation do not affect the continuity of the transit. The question is always one of substance, and in each case it is necessary to consider the particular occasion or purpose of the interruption during which the tax is sought to be levied. . . .

"Where property has come to rest within a State, being held there at the pleasure of the owner, for disposal or use, so that he may dispose of it either within the State, or for shipment elsewhere, as his interest dictates, it is deemed to be a part of the general mass of property within the State and is thus subject to its taxing power."

[ 331 U.S. Page 74]

     Since the circumstances characterizing the interruption are of controlling importance, we turn to the details of the movement and of the stoppage shown by the record.


The suit is the culmination of a controversy extending back to 1939, with earlier litigious chapters in the state and federal courts. It grows out of the operation of facilities for storing and handling coal under various arrangements between the Erie Railroad Company and other corporations affiliated for this and other enterprises by stock ownership or by contract.

The Pennsylvania Coal Company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Erie. It owns and operates coal mines in Pennsylvania. In 1901 it acquired 67.25 acres of land in Saddle River Township, New Jersey. This acreage and its facilities, known as Coalberg, are located on the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad and perform functions connected with that road's operations not material to this cause. Coalberg also is connected directly with the Bergen County Railroad, a freight cutoff of Erie. Its chief purpose, and the only one relevant to this controversy, is to provide storage for coal shipped in from the Coal Company's Pennsylvania mines and later shipped out to various destinations.

Prior to 1939, Coalberg was operated by the Coal Company or its lessees as a private business, not as a public utility. During this time the Township levied personal property taxes upon the coal in storage, assessing and collecting them from its owners.*fn6 These were, as they are now, chiefly coal distributors using Coalberg's storage facilities, principally because of their accessibility to distributing centers, especially in the vicinity of New York

[ 331 U.S. Page 75]

     City, and to shipping facilities both by rail and by water.*fn7

In 1939, however, by arrangements to be set forth involving Erie, the Coal Company and Independent Warehouses, Coalberg was converted into a public utility to serve shippers of coal on Erie lines. Under New Jersey law, goods stored in warehouses conducted for hire are exempted from personal property taxes. Rev. Stat. N. J. § 54:4-3.20. The Township, despite the change in Coalberg's mode of operation, continued to levy such taxes on the stored coal until the 1940 assessment was invalidated in the state courts. Pattison & Bowns v. Saddle River Township, 129 N. J. L. 135; 130 N. J. L. 177.

The municipality's resulting loss in revenue amounted to about eight per cent of the total collected for local, county and state purposes. To make up for this, as its brief here candidly admits, the Township enacted the ordinance now in question, acting under other provisions of state law. N. J. Stat. Ann. §§ 40:52-1, 40:52-2. The effect was to shift the direct incidence of the tax from the owners of the coal, i. e., the shipper-distributors, to the operator of the storage business and to change its character from a direct property tax to that of a license or franchise tax for the privilege of conducting that business in the state. The amount of revenue thus produced, though in dispute, substantially will repair the loss suffered from invalidation of the property tax. This suit is the outgrowth of the Township's effort to enforce the new taxing provisions.

It is necessary to state in some detail the arrangements made in 1939 by which the change was brought about in

[ 331 U.S. Page 76]

     the mode of operating Coalberg. An agreement then made between the Coal Company and Erie provides that the former shall operate Coalberg "as a public service facility for shippers of prepared anthracite coal on Erie lines desiring storage space in accordance with and under the rates named in a certain Tariff on file with the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Public Utilities Commission of the State of New Jersey . . . ." The agreement recites that it is made in view of the considerations that the Coal Company has no need for Coalberg's storage facilities and that they are of use to Erie in affording "facilities for the storage of prepared anthracite coal for shippers on Erie lines whereon said Coalberg Storage Yard is located so that shipments of coal may not be diverted to other and competing lines on which facilities for coal storage are available . . . ." Erie pays the net monthly loss, if any, of operating the yard and the Coal Company remits to Erie the net monthly surplus, if any. Erie also undertakes to maintain an agent at Coalberg duly authorized on its behalf to issue warehouse receipts for coal placed in storage by shippers.

The Coal Company has discharged the operating function under its agreement with Erie by an arrangement also made in 1939 with Independent Warehouses, which is a New York corporation engaged in the warehousing business. The Coal Company leased Coalberg to Independent Warehouses for $1.00 a year and the latter undertook to operate the plant for a consideration which now amounts to approximately $500 a year. The agreement between the Coal Company and Erie governs the manner of Coalberg's operation by Independent Warehouses.

Under these arrangements purchasers from the Coal Company who ship coal from the mines designate the destination on the shipping papers. If they designate Coalberg, the coal is sent there in railroad cars. It is unloaded to the storage pile where it is kept until ordered out

[ 331 U.S. Page 77]

     by the owner. It is then reloaded into railroad cars, and when it is reshipped there is a new billing to the new destination. Most of the coal, after it has been stored, goes to states other than New Jersey. Some, however, is marketed in New Jersey. It is disputed whether there is any local distribution in the Township, but if so the amount is comparatively insignificant.

The financial arrangements under the governing tariff are as follows. On arrival of the shipments at Coalberg the transportation charges on the movement from the mine to Coalberg are paid to the Erie freight agent at Coalberg. When the coal is moved again after storage, the remainder of the through tariff rate from the point of original shipment at the mine in Pennsylvania is paid. This arrangement is known as the transit privilege. "The privilege of transit enables grain [here coal] to be shipped from point A to point B, there to be stored, marketed, or processed, and later reshipped to point C at a ...

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